Refugee studies: the challenge of translating hope into reality

It is one thing for rigorous research to influence policy, and another for that policy to then go an and achieve its intended positive outcome. James Souter argues that Refugee and Forced Migration studies has an important, yet ultimately subsidiary role in the task of improving the lives of refugees and forced migrants

David Turton once argued that ‘there is no justification for studying, and attempting to understand, the causes of human suffering if the purpose of one’s study is not, ultimately, to find ways of relieving and preventing that suffering’. Many researchers working within Refugee and Forced Migration Studies agree, and seek to fulfil what has been described as a ‘dual imperative’ within the discipline: to produce rigorous research, while at the same time influencing policy and practice in ways which ultimately improve the lives of refugees and forced migrants. Citing both ideas in his speech at the 30th Anniversary Conference of the Refugee Studies Centre (RSC) at the University of Oxford, James Milner underscored the centre’s aim of bridging the divides between scholarship, policy and practice. Similarly, a journal set up by students of the centre’s MSc course, the Oxford Monitor of Forced Migration, sees its ultimate goal as ‘protecting and advancing the human rights of individuals who have been forcibly displaced’.

Refugee and Forced Migration Studies clearly has the strong potential to influence policy and practice in ways which ultimately improve the lives of refugees and forced migrants. There are strong links between academic institutions such as the RSC and bodies such as the Policy Development and Evaluation Service (PDES) of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), and researchers often move between research, policy and field-based positions, thereby blurring the boundaries between them.

Abstract and theoretical work on refugees and forced migration can potentially make an important contribution to improving debates and informing the development of better policies. Despite being somewhat removed from the practical and political constraints which shape refugee policy-making, normative work rooted in moral and political theory can, as Joseph Carens has argued, provide a critical standard against which to evaluate current policies. In a panel discussion at the RSC conference, both Alexander Betts and Matthew Gibney argued that restricting the definition of the refugee to those fearing persecution is morally arbitrary, given that other harms from which refugees flee, such as severe socio-economic deprivation, are as worthy of protection and moral concern as persecution. Removing this bias towards the persecuted may not be politically feasible in the current climate, but such critiques serve to ensure that we do not confuse the politically possible with the ideally desirable.

Yet despite the strong potential for such research to contribute to improvements in the lives of refugees and forced migrants, it is important to recognise a number of risks and limitations which are inherent within this ‘dual imperative’. Firstly, if academics uncritically accept policy categories as the basis for their research, then they may, as Turton has also argued, end up limiting themselves to concepts which are more reflective of political priorities and institutional mandates than they are of empirical reality. As Oliver Bakewell has contended, engaging only with what is already on the policy agenda can render certain groups of refugees and forced migrants invisible in research, leading him to stress the importance of what he calls ‘policy irrelevant research’. It is also important that researchers ensure that a moral commitment to assisting refugees and forced migrants does not generate preconceptions about forced migration which then go on to distort research findings.

James Milner pointed out that the standard published formats of academia – lengthy monographs and peer-reviewed journal articles – hardly encourage often overstretched policy-makers to engage with academic research on refugees and forced migrants. The ‘dual imperative’ cannot be fully realised unless the fruits of academic research on refugees and forced migrants are disseminated rapidly in accessible formats such as policy briefings. Otherwise, as Loren Landau has pointed out, research may emerge too late to have an impact on what are often hastily constructed policy responses to humanitarian emergencies.

Moreover, we should not view the legitimacy of Refugee and Forced Migration Studies as a field of enquiry as stemming entirely from its impact, either potential or actual, on policy and practice. The study of refugees and forced migration provides an entry point for analysis into broader issues and themes which are important for their own sake, whether processes of social transformation or the nature of the state, or by serving as a litmus test for our moral beliefs and theories. An insistence that the existence of Refugee and Forced Migration Studies (and academia more generally) is justified only by its practical impact could be viewed as part of a process in which the academy is instrumentalised, and in which anti-intellectual stereotypes of the ‘ivory tower’ as divorced from the ‘real world’ serve to discredit research for research’s sake.

We should also not become overly fixated on the importance and impact of refugee policy, or overstate its influence. As Landau argued, in regions of the world such as Sub-Saharan Africa, law and policy can have little or no influence on the lives of refugees at a local level. The policies which most affect these refugees may not have the word ‘refugee’ in the title, and may therefore be ignored by researchers and policy-makers working on refugee issues. It is vital, as anthropologists such as the RSC's current Director, Dawn Chatty, emphasise, also to bear in mind the local level and the agency of forced migrants in shaping policy and practice, as well as their ability to act in spite of it.

Nor should we exaggerate the ability of research to influence policy and practice, potentially important as it is. Research on refugees and forced migration will inevitably be a longer-term, more indirect and intangible engagement, which can clearly offer no immediate relief to refugees and forced migrants, and whose impact can be very difficult to track. Rigorous research may often be a necessary but insufficient condition for improvements to the lives of refugees and forced migrants: there is a need for a strong evidence-base to inform policy-making, but this is no guarantee of the desired outcome. It is one thing for research to influence a policy (and not even this is always achieved), and another for that policy to then go on to have its intended positive outcome. Refugee and Forced Migration Studies has an important, yet ultimately subsidiary role in the task of improving the lives of refugees and forced migrants.

It is also extremely important not to assume that research on refugees and forced migrants will invariably have a benign impact. Indeed, there is a spectrum of possible outcomes of research ranging from the extremely positive to the highly negative. At best, research on refugees and forced migration is both rigorous and effects positive change. In the middle of the spectrum, the untapped potential of high-quality research for policy may remain within journal articles read only by fellow academics. At the negative end of the spectrum, research may be sloppy but nevertheless happen to have a positive impact. There is such thing as the useful fiction, despite this being anathema to basic standards of academic research.

At worst, Refugee and Forced Migration Studies may actually reinforce rather than challenge power asymmetries which perpetuate displacement, and feed into the exclusionary agendas of states. B.S. Chimni has argued that the shift from Refugee Studies to the broadened agenda of Forced Migration Studies was fundamentally a response to the desire of ‘Northern’ elites to deter and contain migration from the ‘South’, although this has been contested. We should be alert, as Landau has also argued, to the danger of realising the ‘dual imperative’ through an unequal international division of scholarly labour in which universities in the global ‘South’ are restricted to policy-relevant work and to feeding the more expansive research agendas which are possible in the ‘North’.

At its very worst, the desire for policy-relevance could conceivably be hypocritical and serve as a veneer which has far more to do with the furtherance of a prestigious career in elite research or policy-making institutions than it does with a genuine desire to assist refugees and forced migrants. These potentially negative contributions of research to global refugee policy and practice may be either intentional or unintentional. While we can imagine a hard-headed realist who is quite happy for his or her research outputs to be used by states to contain refugees, negative outcomes may also be the result of well-meaning research, given that researchers have limited control over how their research is interpreted, used or co-opted after publication and dissemination.

Ultimately, the desire for research to have a positive influence on refugee policy and practice often remains an aspiration rather than a guaranteed or verified outcome. The word ‘hope’ is often a recurring one in discussions of the impact of Refugee and Forced Migration Studies. The RSC conference’s background paper stated that the event ‘will hopefully demonstrate how the academic debates can work for the rights of refugees and other forced migrants’, while James Milner closed his speech by expressing his hope that such progress will be made on refugees’ rights in the coming decades that there will be no need for a 50th anniversary of the RSC. The challenge facing researchers is, through close attention to both the potential and the pitfalls of policy-focused research, to translate this hope into reality.



About the author

James Souter is a DPhil candidate in International Development at the University of Oxford. His work addresses ethical issues surrounding asylum and refugee protection, particularly in relation to reparation for displacement. In his thesis, he is developing the argument that asylum should at times act as a form of reparation for past injustice. He holds an MSc in Refugee and Forced Migration Studies from the University of Oxford, an MA in Understanding and Securing Human Rights from the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London, and a BA in Philosophy and History with European Study from the University of Exeter. He is a volunteer and trustee of the Oxford-based organisation, Asylum Welcome.